What are instructional coaches and how do they help teachers?

Jessica Fuller • Sep 15, 2018 at 11:59 PM

Two years after Washington County brought instructional coaches into the school system, some Board of Education members are wondering if those coaches would be better used in classrooms to help ease overcrowding across the county.

The county has 11 academic coaches — five federally funded and six funded through the department’s budget. Each elementary and K-8 school has its own coach, while Boones Creek elementary and middle school share a coach.

At September’s monthly board meeting, newcomer Chad Fleenor brought up the possibility of taking the six coaches funded through the department’s budget and repurposing them in the classroom to help with overcrowding.

The idea didn’t come to a vote, and Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary pointed out that the board can create and abolish positions, but not transfer employees — meaning that the board could only vote to eliminate the positions and hiring the coaches back as teachers would fall under Flanary’s discretion.

Newly elected board chairman Keith Ervin said he doesn’t doubt the effectiveness of the coaches, and added that he wasn’t sure it’s a good idea to move students around six weeks into the school year. Even though all classrooms are within state and board policy, he said the board is looking to tackle crowding in lower grades, and that’s an issue he said the board will have to consider going forward.

“It’s a budget issue, and it’s a policy issue,” he said. “If I don’t have enough money and I can’t get more money to hire whatever amount of teachers that we need, then we might need to go and take some instructional coaches to do this.”

But what exactly does an instructional coach do, and how does their job help students?

To see what the everyday effect of instructional coaches is, the Press talked to Misha Croley, the instructional coach at Grandview Elementary School, and three teachers who say having an instructional coach has been helpful for them.

What does an instructional coach do? 

Instructional coaches are new to Washington County — Croley accepted her position at Grandview two years ago after 13 years as a teacher.

She describes her job as “looking for effective teaching strategies and research-based strategies that help improve student growth.” On a more day-to-day basis, Croley can be in the classroom taking notes, co-teaching a model lesson or researching the best teaching methods to help all 46 faculty members at the school on a case-by-case basis.

She also functions as the testing coordinator for the school, and works with second through eighth grade to gear students up for TN Ready testing. She’s currently working on a book room at the school, filling a conference room with resources for easy access for teachers.

While Croley’s 13 years of experience teaching kindergarten, first, second and fifth grades means she is qualified to run a classroom, she wouldn’t have enough time to have her own classroom and perform duties as an academic coach.

The teachers instructional coaching has helped: 

Stephanie Williams taught at Jonesborough Elementary school for eight years before transferring to Grandview two years ago. Williams’ background is in math and science, and she got reassigned a second grade classroom when she moved to Grandview, which she said was daunting.

“I went through a transition from a fourth-grade math classroom to a second grade instruction of all subject areas, so I was very intimidated since I hadn’t taught reading in five years,” Williams said. “But (Croley) was a complete life saver, and the reason I say that is because she brought in so many resources for me.”

Cassie Neely is in her 13th year of teaching and she’s been at Grandview for 10 of those years. She spent 12 years as a Title I reading teacher, and was switched to a kindergarten class last year. Croley’s job was to help Neely with the transition.

“I felt like she pushes us, and then we push our students to show their success,” Neely said. “I feel like her role is so beneficial to us as educators and our students because without her, we don’t have someone in that position to go to and to stay late with us and to look at data that we need to be using to drive our instruction.”

Pam Hensley has been teaching for 11 years. She said she wasn’t pleased with her effectiveness scores during her evaluations a few years ago, and reached out to Croley for help.

“In order to grow, we have to be uncomfortable, and (Croley) helped me through those nerves and that uncomfortable position to make my teaching better, and I doubled my scores last year.” Hensley said.

Aid from middle ground

Because school principals function in an administrative role, they are in charge of evaluating that school’s teachers. When Hensley wanted to improve her evaluation score, she said it was easier to approach someone who wasn’t a direct co-worker or supervisor to get the aid that she needed.

“It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to say, ‘I’m not a 5. I’m not perfect.’ I want to improve because it’s about the kids,” Hensley said.

“Having someone who isn’t in an administrative role to come in and help with that is very, very helpful.”

Restructuring the system

Some board members have tossed around the idea of restructuring the current system of instructional coaches. The idea is to take a coach that excels in a certain subject, say K-3 language arts, and bounce that teacher across the county to help all K-3 language arts teachers in that particular subject.

The teachers at Grandview, along with principal Rachel Adams, say that one of the most important aspects of having an instructional coach is the personal relationships they build with that coach, which are instrumental in the effectiveness of the instructional coach system.

In fact, Neeley and Hensley said they have worked with “floating” coaches before, and both said they prefer having one coach per school.

“You can’t build that rapport and support with someone who’s in and out of the building who you might see once a week,” Neeley said. “Where’s the support, where’s the feedback and what you need to facilitate for your classroom?”

Williams added that it’s not about the subject matter — it’s about the technique. 

“When we go to college and get our teaching degree, they don’t say, ‘OK, you’re going to be a third grade teacher, and we’re going to train you in third-grade math,’” Williams said. “I think when we come in with the right strategies, the right teaching techniques, the right pedagogy, then that can be carried over to whatever subject and whatever you teach and you put your personal knowledge on the subject area.” 


Aiding the most students

When Crowley had her own classroom, she directly influenced anywhere from a dozen to 30 students in a school year.

Now, as an instructional coach, she indirectly influences the learning of hundreds of students per year through coaching teachers at the school.

Adams said instructional coaches are a tool she’s seen work in the two years Croley has been at Grandview, as she said she’s noticed test scores rise since instructional coaches were added to each elementary and K-8 school in the county.

“When we don’t have enough money to cover everything, we have to look at what’s going to impact most of our students,” Adams said. “Having our instructional coaches has had such a positive impact on our teachers, who are the No. 1 factor for positively impacting our students. I think we have to stick with that, and it’s working.”

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